Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the five 'Stans' of the former USSR have suffered from a lack of proper maintenance, local investment and poor institutional capacity, leading to deterioration. A large scale, western approach might not be answer and instead a focus should be on getting sufficient collection systems in place first.
By Martin Steiner and Natasha Sim
The five former Soviet republics of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are characterized as landlocked countries on the Eurasian continent. They are often referred to as the '-stans' and are most famous for the Silk Road, which transported goods, people, and cultures between Asia and Europe.
All five countries still speak Russian in government and law, as it was the foundation language of the Soviet Union for approximately 70 years. Huge mountain ranges, deserts, and vast steppe lie between the Caspian Sea and the Chinese border leading to geographic extremes and nomadic cultures.
These former Soviet republics all follow similar legacies of the past and have struggled economically after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Their GNI per capita rapidly decreased and only began to improve around the late 1990s.
Lack of proper maintenance, local investment and poor institutional capacity since the end of the Soviet Union, has led to deterioration of human and physical infrastructure. Human skills have diminished since many specialists have either retired or emigrated. Physical infrastructure is diminishing and any equipment remaining is hanging on its last thread.
With regards to waste management, these five countries suffer from a financial catch-22 independent of the economic situation. Citizens have a low willingness to pay for waste management services since the system is falling apart. Without these fees municipalities cannot afford to run the system to a suitable standard, let alone invest in improving the situation.
Current conditions have attracted donors and International Financial Institutions (IFIs) to Central Asia, with an increasing number of projects in the municipal Solid Waste management (SWM) sector. Investments have led to improvements but the greatest successes occur when the expectations are less glamorous and more realistic. Often projects attempt to implement Western standards, such as EC legislation, when 'softer' standards, such as the "European Solid Waste Minimum Standard" (1573/2007 resolution of the Council of Europe) create some faster and more effective improvements.
The Soviet 'Manipulator' System
The old Soviet system, while certainly not a beauty, is definitely not a beast. MSW collection in many former Soviet republics uses a side loader system, which is the most common system of 'containerisation'. This stage of collection development usually follows the manually loaded tractor-trailer and dumper truck systems. The system's solid conical steel box possesses a few advantages that are not always given the credit they deserve. The simple design of the containers allows for local production and the lowest unit price (per litre of collection volume).
It is a perfect example of the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) design principle, as there are no movable parts (wheels or hinges). This not only makes the construction easier but also makes the bins subject to less damage and theft and allows for straightforward maintenance procedures. Furthermore, these sturdy steel containers do not have to be moved or relocated during the loading procedure preventing musculoskeletal disorders in waste collectors.
Decision makers, lying beyond the operation level, usually underestimate these benefits. The steel construction is essential in this region of the world where having fires in bins is a habit that is not likely to be overcome in the short-term.
Regional Map: The five countries this article refers to with Kazakhstan – the world's largest landlocked country – as the richest
One disadvantage compared with 'Western' container systems, is the lack of a visual barrier (a lid). However, this flaw is solvable and should be left as a challenge for the system's suppliers. Another drawback is less user comfort for those that have to carry their waste lengthy distances to the container, however individual household container systems cost significantly more and would not be cost effective.
Landfill fires and the fairytale of the shashlik embers
A typical Central Asian landfill can be identified by its dry appearance and the presence of several smoke plumes. The latter a useful characteristic for identifying them on satellite images. The burning is often explained to be a result of embers that are collected from roadside shashlik (barbequed meat skewers) stands typical in the region.
Kokshetau, North Kazakhstan: A two-axle side loader compaction truck (build-up volume 10 – 15 m3, three-axle trucks are usually equipped with 22 m3 boxes) operating bins with a typical volume of 600 l. Note that the volume of this container type is generously referred to in virtually all former Soviet republics as being 0.75 m3
Interestingly, landfill burning only occurs on those landfills where scavenging is condoned – which admittedly happens in a majority of the landfills. Scavenging should not be understood in a derogatory sense, since the usual alternatives 'informal recycler' or 'waste picker' – though politically correct – are either technically incorrect since recycling does not happen at the landfill, or do not reflect the dire conditions which the activities in question represent.
Embers may be the true cause for igniting fires in some cases. However, more often than not they are intentionally started. 'Informal thermal treatment' is often applied for better access to various kinds of scrap metal. Therefore setting freshly delivered waste loads on fire is a standard practice in the region and it is applied to entire loads as well as pre-sorted fractions. Stopping this practice – which requires nothing more than a committed site operator – would vastly improve health conditions for all those working and living on or near the landfill (generally overlapping segments).
ISO 14001 - and a recycling plant for energy saving bulbs
There is an inverse relationship between the emphasis that many donors put on 'Western' environmental standards and the ability of the beneficiaries to implement them. The application of 'softer' standards would create more sustainable solutions at a faster rate, for it is impossible to leapfrog certain stages of development.
Gross National Income per Capita in US$ demonstrating the country's economic strength. Data adapted from UN Statistics Division
An example of unrealistic expectations is the dream of becoming rich of from waste. It is a common misconception from both donors and beneficiaries – making recycling plants a reoccurring item on SWM project's 'shopping lists'.
As experienced recently in Tajikistan, where energy saving light bulbs are readily used in even the poorest households, there is a local wish for a recycling plant to be built for this specific (moreover hazardous and virtually unrecyclable) perceived problem solver. Recycling plants are often thought of as Western solutions that will bring prosperity and popularity when in reality the payback period extends beyond the expected lifespan.
A Cinderella Situation
Too often in the Stans, disposal is hogging the attention, where collection should be the belle of the ball. There is a tendency for international projects to focus on upgrading disposal situations when the bigger problem lies in the deteriorating collection system.
Taldykorgan, South Kazakhstan: "Soviet style" side loader vehicles with a pivot mounted loading arm (local term: "manipulator") are capable of loading up to three containers without changing the vehicle position.
Project Terms of Reference often place a large emphasis on creating sanitary disposal sites, where more attention should be put on the fact that majority of citizens in former Soviet republics suffer from a lack of containers and infrequent collection. Solid waste collection in the region is characterised by collapsing municipal systems but at the same time use a remarkable amount of creativity to continue the service. Vehicle drivers usually double as waste collectors and ingenious truck mechanics.
Due to the hands-on and generally repair-friendly designs of Soviet vehicles, the skilful drivers fix and overhaul core components – engines, differential gearboxes and any other part of the container pick-up system. This often takes place in conditions that a Western SWM operator would not know how, or dare to approach. Some parts that are repaired in-house such as gearboxes, even a professional Western mechanic would mostly likely send back to the supplier.
The condition of the collection systems is of high concern and an environmental risk, significantly contributing to the disastrous air quality in all dwelling structures. Illegal dumping and burning of over spilled waste is typical, even in upmarket city districts, as many SWM companies cannot cope with the amount of waste generated. The main disposal method in the region is landfilling in locations strategically selected during the Soviet Era. They are generally within a reasonable distance from the city and usually lie in areas with acceptable properties. Given the logical location of the landfills, which normally pose minimal threat to the environment, more attention should be paid to improving the collection stage of the system.
It should be noted that the operation of the landfills is another story and does not merit too much credit. When upgrading a disposal site, a common issue is the attitude of some local decision makers who want to 'move on' from the current landfill and find a new location. The possibility of finding a better location is unlikely as each city has expanded since the Soviets centralised disposal in the late 1970s and 80s.
Generally, this understandable desire stems from being confronted with complaints mainly about smoke and poor visual aesthetics. However, moving the landfill does not solve the essence of the problem, which comes down to management techniques and commitment levels.
Apart from increasing transportation costs such an upgrade demands two major investments – the new landfill and the clean-up of the existing site. From an urban planning point of view, a move also results in two areas being devalued. The less nomadic approach – extending the existing site with up-to-date landfill standards and an integrated clean-up – requires much less monetary input (by a ballpark factor of 1.5). It is usually the "harder sell" but must not be overlooked in a project's start-up phase.
Natasha Sim and Martin Steiner are working together on Central Asian projects funded by national sources as well as IFIs. Steiner is CEO of TBU Environmental Engineering Consultants www.tbu-austria.com. Email: M.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sim holds an MSc in Environmental Engineering from Imperial College London. Email: Natasha.email@example.com.
Risks For Donors And Investors…
Overall, donor intentions are positive: upgrading and improving SWM systems. However if the beneficiaries are unable to payback the loan, the risk is that money is taken out of the beneficiary's municipal or even national budget resulting in less funding for other essential sectors, such as health care and education.
This is not exclusive to the region but prevalent in many development projects. In the long run, there is a high risk of generating sunken investments, damaging donor reputations and adding costs for beneficiaries. Incinerators for stray dogs are an example of prevalent constituents on procurement lists that are guaranteed to turn into such losses.
Companies that struggle with institutional capacity focus mainly on the transportation of waste and not on disposal methods. It is likely they will be unable to maintain operation of a technically advanced system in an environmentally safe way. However, the underlying reason for becoming a sunken investment is much more fundamental and human; mankind solves problems only after he starts to suffer from them.
Currently, nobody suffers from the dead dogs that are deposited at the landfill (where they can be safely buried) and it is therefore likely the beneficiaries will end up preferring to save on the fuel it takes to operate such an incinerator.